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"Too Pro-Choice?"

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Garance has an interesting excerpt from a speech by John Kerry, in which he asserts that the Democrats are “too pro-choice” and E.J Dionne asks “Why do you think you didn’t give a speech like this in, say, May or June of 2004?” Dionne’s implication is that such a speech would have been politically useful. But would it?

I can certainly see some political value in signaling respect for respect for supporters of abortion criminalization, and I don’t believe that Democrats running for national office can say all the same things about reproductive freedom that I would. But in the particular form Kerry articulates it here, the argument seems the worst of all worlds. First of all, very annoyingly it claims (straight out of the anti-choice Book of Myths) that “science” is substantially changing the abortion debate and greatly altering viability, when in fact there’s no evidence that this is true and the vast majority of abortions continue take place before viability. Kerry’s argument in general concedes (wholly unearned) moral high ground to the abortion criminalization lobby and, even worse, never bothers to explain why it shouldn’t have its way. The structure of Kerry’s speech is essentially “abortion is really bad but should remain legal because it just should.” That’s only a good approach if you want to set up the debate to lose, and as long as you have nominally pro-choice policy positions you’re unlikely to receive credit for it anyway. (After all, Kerry was in fact very squishy in defensing abortion throughout the 2004, but never gets retrospective “credit” for it anyway; you apparently can never be squishy enough. Which in a way makes sense; if I was an anti-choicer, I would want a politician who supports my substantive positions, not one who says that he or she “respects” me.)

If Democratic politicians have to signal respect for “pro-lifers,” it seems to me that rather than saying that abortion is immoral but should remain legal for reasons we won’t get into, much better is to focus in what abortion bans would actually do. Wouldn’t something like this be both better in the merits and more effective strategically?

Many people in the audience believe that abortion is morally wrong. And no matter what people’s moral position is, we can all agree that preventing unwanted pregnancies is better than abortions. However, our opponents take very extreme positions that are unlikely to achieve these goals anyway. The Republican platform supports a constitutional amendment that would make abortion first-degree murder in all 50 states; I don’t think most Americans support that approach. But even if it passed, the experience of other countries suggests that there would still be a large number of abortions; the only difference is that more poor women will be maimed and killed in back-alley abortions. That’s not effective, and it’s not fair. Giving women the access to contraception, education, medical and child care they need, on the other hand, will both protect women’s freedom and lead to fewer abortions. State coercion doesn’t work, as our history makes clear. This is something we should all agree on.

I’m no speechwriter, so I don’t know exactly how you’d phrase it, but it seems to be that to be useful any gambit like Kerry’s should 1)make clear why one is pro-choice whatever their moral reservations, 2)should focus on areas where the “pro-life” position is unpopular rather than uncritically accepting opposition frames (or, worse, repeating their erroneous claims), and 3)focus on why criminalization fails to be effective or meet basic standards of equality and fairness even if you support its ends. Kerry’s way of discussing the issue fails on all three counts.

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  • Winters

    I think you’re on the right path, but are missing the fundamental issue: abortion is about motherhood. If you really want to signal respect to the pro-lifers in the crowd, emphasize motherhood — and focus on the fact that most women get abortions because they want to be good mothers.

  • ewan

    Abortion is the only issue in which the left is brutally honestwith the voters on their agenda. They don’t apologize.
    Kerry is now telling them to disguise their agenda as they do with single-payer big government health insurance bingo, homosexual ‘rights’ and gun grabbing.

  • Dan

    Wow, Ol’ Mush-Mouth strikes again.
    Every time I hear him open his mouth about anything I wonder how on earth anyone ever managed to imagine that he was actually electable.

  • Too pro-choice?
    WTF? Is that like being too pro-freedom? Or too pro-free speech? Or too pro-freedom of religion? Too pro-gun rights?
    Sweet Zombie Jesus – these people are stupid. I can’t believe I voted for that man in 2004. Well, I can, since the alternative was someone almost as dumb as ewan. But I can’t believe it reached a point where I was forced to choose between someone almost as dumb as ewan and someone dumb enough to argue that you could be “too pro-choice”.

  • djw

    Dan, it’s silly to suggest that someone who came as close to being elected as Kerry did is manifestly “unelectable.”

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    How many straight, white, male DC Democrats at some level blame every electoral loss on women, minorities, and teh gays?

  • Hogan

    More honest Ewan: I can read the thoughts inside liberals’ minds. Oh yes I can.

  • aimai

    Oh, I get it, ewan is dada.
    reading his latest screed a little too rapidly I came up with a complaint about “homosexual gun grabbers”–it sounds like a fantastic new perversion. When can we expect to see our first republican congressman arrested for it?
    aimai

  • zak822

    Kerry, like so many others, is leaning toward the GOP view because they have this cockeyed notion that it will help them win elections.
    It can’t be his sloppy campaign, it must be abortion and the War on Terra that cost him the White House.

  • ewan

    Every time I hear him open his mouth about anything I wonder how on earth anyone ever managed to imagine that he was actually electable.
    Well, he was actually against it before he was for it…

  • strategichamlet

    Speaking of dumb Democratic strategies, why don’t they rail against anyone who supports the defense of marriage amendment? Gay rights have gotten steadily more popular recently and the idea of re-writing the constitution is almost always extremely unpopular. It seems like the DMA is an issue on which Republicans are in a real bind since a portion of their base demands it, yet it is widely unpopular in the general population.

  • Winters

    SteveG: There’s abortion and then there’s ABORTION which has nothing to do with abortion. It’s a rhetorical trap called “cage and frame.”
    If you don’t have the right to your own body, are any other “rights” really rights?
    You make it sound like women have been tricked into supporting reproductive rights. There’s a reason why abortion has been at the center of the feminist movement from the beginning — and why women initially chose to put it there.

  • Winters,
    I’m not at all denigrating the need for legal access to abortion. It’s not that we’ve been tricked into supporting abortion rights, it’s that in making abortion into ABORTION they’ve successfully tricked us into diverting all our attention, funding, indeed discussion at all away from all other issues important to women and into ABORTION alone.
    ABORTION is no longer abortion to left or right. To a segment of the right, ABORTION is the tip of sword to put in place a Christian version of Sharia law. They’ve chosen abortion of all the issues to let out of the rhetorical cage because if they can’t win with pictures of bloody fetuses, where can they win?
    To the left, ABORTION is about whether or not we are going to start to see the unraveling of all the progress the women’s movement has succeeded in gaining. If women lose reproductive choice, the ends fray on so many other advances as well. We have no choice now but to fight for ABORTION with all we’ve got, but we also need to realize that it comes with a price that is paid in the lack of progress on other fronts regarding gender equality.
    What we see Kerry doing here (and many Democratic pundits as well) is treating ABORTION as if it were nothing but abortion. We need to be smart in taking the other issues out of the cage and removing the Republican frame. We need not to be less stridently pro-choice, we need to enrich the argument and show that access to legal abortion is part of a larger campaign for justice. What we are seeing here is exactly the wrong move. It is falling into the same old rhetorical trap.

  • Winters

    SteveG: It’s not that we’ve been tricked into supporting abortion rights, it’s that in making abortion into ABORTION they’ve successfully tricked us into diverting all our attention, funding, indeed discussion at all away from all other issues important to women and into ABORTION alone.
    I know. And my point is that, to borrow your terminology, we turned abortion into ABORTION first. It’s been a while since I’ve read Luker, Mohr, Solinger, et al., but if I remember correctly, our attention, funding, and discussion compared to other issues is roughly proportionate to what it was in the early 1970s. Why? Because the middle-class white women leading the movement don’t believe it’s possible to have meaningful rights if we can’t have the right to control our bodies and motherhood.
    And to be blunt, the Second Wavers were right. On a daily basis, all other rights pale in comparison to reproductive rights — simply because nothing changes your life as much as being a mother does.

  • Winters

    I apologize for the double post; I accidentially hit return.
    SteveG:
    To the left, ABORTION is about whether or not we are going to start to see the unraveling of all the progress the women’s movement has succeeded in gaining. If women lose reproductive choice, the ends fray on so many other advances as well.

    What other advances? The only ones I can think of are Title IX and sexual harassment/discrimination laws. The economic gains you appear to be referring to have far more to do with white women’s ability to control reproduction than they have to do with discrimination laws.
    After all, if it really were about the discrimination laws, you’d see far more of an improvement among minority and poor women.

  • aimai

    I agree with steveg. Democratic politicians like Kerry just can’t keep their mouths shut long enough to be strategic about things. They think someone wants to know their position on “abortion” or any other individual issue. We don’t. We want them to fight for liberty and law and we want them to do it strategically. I don’t give a flying *&^%^ what Kerry thinks about any given issue or how torn he is or whatever. and I really don’t want to know that he thinks women’s issues are secondary and not primary. I’d like to see *all* our democratic issues treated seriously by our democratic leaders and not brushed off as “identity politics” or “isolated” or “too far left” or whatever other term they use.
    But lets face it, Kerry lost the election on likeability. People voted against Kerry *because they didn’t like him* more than theydidn’t like bush. They may have thought it was over a single issue, like abortion, but his whole character was smeared so badly that there were people who simply hated his face without being able to accurately list a single thing they actually opposed on his platform. That is the genius of the republicans and the failure of the democrats. Personality and personal likeability carries the day over policy every time. And talking about a single policy point, and dissing your base to do it, just shows kerry never learned this important lesson. Or doesn’t want to acknowledge it.
    aimai

  • ewan

    I’d like to see *all* our democratic issues treated seriously by our democratic leaders and not brushed off as “identity politics” or “isolated” or “too far left” or whatever other term they use.
    This is the frustration of the far left. The frustration arises from the dissonance caused by their belief that they are annointed and right and their causes are so just that anyone should get behind them, and the harsh reality that they are largely a marginal faction of their own party and do not represent the mainstream.
    Truth hurts

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